The Agony and the Activism: Pain and Social Change
Somehow, in the course of my college years, I turned into an activist. I don’t entirely recall how this happened or when — precisely — I attached the label to my identity. I can’t place the exact period when I began considering my interest in activism a key component of who I am. Yet, I have a pretty good sense of why I became this person, and I suspect the answer — at its broadest place — applies for many of the activists I know.
Quite simply, the answer is pain.
I turned to activism, originally, as an absolutely desperate response to the pain I was feeling. I was trying my damndest to locate a way I might respond to personal struggles that no longer felt (solely) personal. I was tired of trying to fix my “ugliness” by fixing my body, tired of trying to manage being silenced by not speaking up. I wanted to stop taking my frustration out on myself, to start identifying responsible institutions and calling out their misdeeds. It was time — past time — to externalize the rage that had triggered my years’-long implosion. It was time to battle the social forces contributing to my situation, instead of battling to avoid the pain they caused.
Activism quickly became an outlet for me, a main means of maintaining my sanity. The instances of fat-hate and body-shaming that once triggered restriction and purging, a sense of powerlessness or a full-on depressive shut-down, began to trigger culture-jamming, petition-filing, or letter-writing campaigns. Instead of isolating, I started hosting events. Instead of self-injuring, I began to break out my soapbox. For the most part, this has served me well.
But it hasn’t always been an easy substitution. I turned to activism — both consciously and unconsciously — to replace several less constructive behaviors, — behaviors like cutting, binging, purging, restricting, and refusing to leave my room. On the surface, this looks like a phenomenal trade: I replaced speaking with silence, disconnection with community, the sense of powerlessness with an increasing awareness of my own capacity to create change.
However, my experience of activism retained a number of old bruises, injuries that once colored those behaviors-now-replaced. The pain — which before led me to cut and to starve — began leading me into better territory, but it continued to be pain and it continued to lead. Although I invested in activism, I remained angry, devastated, and at the end of my rope. More importantly, my activism reflected this. It reflected my desperation, my impulsiveness, the panicked terror of my flight-or-fight instinct. I wasn’t sitting down and strategically considering means for effective dialogue. I wasn’t looking to engage anyone, to reflect and heal within a community. I was — violently and venemously — hitting the warpath.
I did this again and again and again. I flew into campaigns without fact-checking. I flew into campaigns without considering my methods. I flew into campaigns without offering others the benefit of the doubt, without even gauging my own stamina, determining if I was up to the task. With disastrous results, personally and politically, I flew into campaigns on the coattails of my rage.
The best example I have: My freshman year of college, I came across an issue of the now-defunct women’s magazine Missbehave, while perusing the magazine section at a local bookstore. Missbehave billed itself as a “whip-smart testament to urbane awesomeness” and came out quarterly from its base in Brooklyn, NY. That issue (from the Spring of 2007) featured Jenny Lewis as a cover model and boasted articles on Dina Lohan and Mickey Mouse.
I can only tell you this, now, with the assistance of Google. I remember none of it off the top of my head, because — at the time — I saw none of it. Literally.
Now, why am I telling this story? I could tell it out of a desire to publicly flog myself, three years after the fact, for what I still consider a serious misstep. I could tell it to draw attention to the complicated content of a publication no longer in print, to poll readers who tend toward particularly savvy insights into ED-related content on the exact extent to which I was out of line. I could tell it, as an attempt to beg forgiveness from Mary H.K. Choi, who — with the same blunt fatigue I often express in such situations — told a member of our anti-Missbehave cavalry, “Dude, we are on the same damn side.” And perhaps, on some semi-unintentional level, I am doing a combination of these things now. But I draw on this story, intentionally, to help illustrate the type of activist I once was, the activist I’m now actively struggling not to be.
I came to activism out of pain. Pain over being mistreated. Pain over being shamed. Pain over being silenced. Pain over unnecessary losses and immense, preventable griefs. Many of us who do good work come to it from bad places. Beaten down, bearing baggage, we find activism and work to make meaning out of the irreperable messes in our pasts. When this is true, activism — like freedom — is what we do with what’s been done to us.
To be clear, I take no issue with the relationship between my activism and my pain. The worst storms that have befallen me, the most violent disasters that have terrorized my friends — begin, through activism, to do good. Taking action doesn’t erase the brutality; it doesn’t transform my past or curttail those immediate responses of devastation, anxiety, and rage. But — when I can’t have sunlight — I try and settle for storms with purpose.
I reiterate: the issue I take is not with pain. I don’t know a single activist who became an ambassador of zir cause(s) in a bubbly, pain-free way. I respect the pain I feel when I witness oppression, silencing, shaming, and the rest. I respect it for reminding me how much I care about humans, how much it matters when we are mistreated, how much of a stake I have in a world that does better (by all of us) than this world that so often missteps. Understanding that I come to activism bloodied and bruised is one thing. It’s a good thing, in that it allows me to stop and check in with myself, to determine what I’m up for in a given moment, to make sure that when I’m working on “taking over” the world, I’m also taking time to take care of myself. The experiences — raw and sharp-edged as they are — that made these causes matter to me are not at fault.
But they are also not in charge. My pain is not the problem, but it is also — most definitely — not in the driver’s seat.
At times, pain can help me navigate. It can draw attention to This or That atrocity by the side of the road, the same way that — as a passenger — I draw attention to the more ridiculous billboards my friends and I pass, while driving. It can make suggestions — the way that, as a passenger, I make suggestions to my friends and family — about which particular food joint we stop at or which route we take home. Pain can draw my eye in certain directions. It can offer its input. It can have my attention, but it can’t have the wheel.
Pain needs to stay a nondriver. When it has access to the gas pedal, pain tends to floor it. It speeds past important questions like “what do I need?” and “am I respecting the others involved?” Pain-driven activism takes action, fast, in order to avoid breaking down. It remembers a time when braking was the go-to response to triggers, when stopping and shutting down were givens. It wants to ensure we never return to this state again, and it will happily break the speedometer in the process of making this happen. Pain — to put it bluntly — drives stupid. It panics, it speeds, it has road rage.
I don’t want pain to drive my activism, because I don’t want to use activism, the way I used cutting, purging, and the rest. I don’t want to use activism to avoid feeling, when really I need to sit down and scream/ remember/ cry. I don’t want to use activism to attack other people, the way I once attacked myself. I don’t want to use “activism” as an excuse not to listen; I don’t want to silence others to avoid feeling silenced. I want to draw a line, separating pain as a motivator for activism from activism as a method of inflicting harm.
I’m not the only activist who has been flat-out shittastic when it comes to engaging in dialogue. I’m not the only one with buttons easily pushed or fists forever at the ready. But I’m also not the only one who knows that activism-as-a-fight — with all the violence and power-play there implied — does not align with my ethics or my goals. I’m not the only one who believes working for justice requires not only my goals, but my means also to be just. And so when I commit to take a deep breath here and there, to communicate with respect, to try and laugh through the pain, I am also not the only one. I’m not the only one who remembers we come to activism human.
Which is to say: we come to activism carrying our pain. We do good when we recommit, continually, to this knowledge: Pain does not — and must not — carry us.